Autism Awareness Challenge attracts stacked field

More than 800 players from 40 high schools competing in the 11th annual Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge will become a part of “Team Jules” in a show of solidarity and support for a young girl battling a rare form of pediatric brain cancer.

The event showcases seven teams currently ranked among the Top 20 statewide, more than two dozen players who have signed with or committed to major Division I colleges and several professional prospects who are expected to be selected in the 2018 MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Those participating in the three-day event, during which 20 games will be contested at North Brunswick’s Community Park from April 20 through April 22, will receive specially designed wristbands in honor of Julie Hildebrand, a 4-year-old from Colonia who has been undergoing intense chemotherapy treatments at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia since being diagnosed four months ago with pineoblastoma.

In the name of every player who homers during the baseball challenge, the Teamwork Unlimited Foundation, an Edison-based nonprofit which sponsors the event, will make a donation to the Hildebrands to help defray the family’s medical expenses and personal expenses associated with caring for a critically ill child.

Players who homer during the baseball challenge will autograph a huge Dalmatian-themed baseball banner bearing the words "Homers for Hildebrand," which will be displayed at the venue and presented to Julie and her family following the event.

Dalmatians are Julie’s favorite. Stuffed animal versions of them have crowded her hospital bed. Clip art of a Dalmatian and a cancer ribbon adorn the specially designed “Team Jules” wristbands that players, coaches and umpires will receive.

“Team Jules” is the moniker established for those in the community rallying around Julie, who will soon undergo an autologous stem cell transplant and whose next round of treatment, including additional chemotherapy, will begin in May.

Julie has fought her valiant battle – including multiple transfusions, MRIs, CT scans and spinal taps – with a smile on her face and an army of support, according to her mother, Rachel, who said each day brings Julie one step closer to winning the fight. Rachel is grateful for the community’s overwhelming support, which includes keeping Julie in its thoughts and prayers.

Mike Garlatti, a Colorado Rockies scout and former Rutgers University assistant coach who starred at Highland Park, founded the baseball challenge 11 years ago to heighten awareness about autism, the nation’s fastest growing developmental disorder.

As the event grew, Garlatti and his wife, Trisha, who have a son on the autism spectrum, founded Teamwork Unlimited, whose mission is to help those in need.

Money raised from the baseball challenge has benefited multiple individuals and organizations including The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Camp Fatima, the Center for Lifelong Learning, Wounded Warrior Project, Special Olympics New Jersey, PSE&G Children’s Specialized Hospital, The Marisa Tufaro Foundation and others.

In recent years, Teamwork Unlimited has used its home run donations to support the families of Ben Lepisto, a Woodbridge High School baseball player, and three-year-old Shane O’Donnell, son of former Middlesex High School baseball coach Mike O’Donnell, who are both winning battles with pediatric cancer.

Admission is free to all 20 games (complete schedule below). A ceremonial first pitch — thrown by a special needs child or someone who works with special needs children — will take place before each contest.

The baseball challenge began as a grassroots effort more than a decade ago with Garlatti and several volunteers walking up to spectators at games to deliver pamphlets containing information about autism.

Volunteers will continue to educate spectators, setting up a table between Community Park’s adjacent fields that will display information about autism, but the event has grown exponentially since its inception. The event is contested during Autism Awareness Month.

Autism is a lifelong neurological disorder that impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. It's broad spectrum of characteristics range from severe detached and isolated behavior to extreme verbal and hypersensitive behavior.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the identified prevalence of autism spectrum disorders nationally has increased from 1 in 110 to 1 in 68 since Garlatti began the baseball challenge event a decade ago. One in 45 children in New Jersey – 62 percent of whom are boys – are on the autism spectrum.

Representatives from this year’s participating teams gathered last month at Edison High School for a reception, which featured several inspiring speakers, including Stanley Richards, a student with autism from Millburn, and Somerville three-sport athlete Andrew Diodato, a junior who uses the platform of sports as a catalyst for social inclusion.

A PowerPoint presentation, detailing the event’s mission, helped the players and coaches fully understand their role in the baseball challenge and the impact their participation can make on the lives of others such as the Hildebrand family.

The Autism Awareness Baseball Challenge is supporting Julie Hildebrand, a 4-year-old from Colonia battling pediatric brain cancer

Participating teams traditionally have put their own spin on the event’s fundraising component. For the third straight year, Sayreville players collected donations at home varsity basketball games, and Rahway players sold specially designed autism awareness bands.

Each of the last four years, the Teamwork Unlimited Foundation has presented a special award to the top fundraising program, an honor which most recently went to St. Joseph. This year, Bishop Ahr and Sayreville are among the teams who turned in phenomenal fundraising efforts.

For the third consecutive year, Garlatti announced that a scholarship program through the foundation is available to current seniors participating in the challenge. To be eligible, students must be pursuing a postsecondary education and submit an essay of 250 to 500 words describing how participating in the challenge inspired them to become involved with individuals with special needs.

The inaugural challenge featured eight teams, all from Middlesex County. This year’s event includes teams from as far north as Bergen County and as far south as Atlantic County.

Unlike the baseball challenge’s inaugural year, when players wore specially designed Autism Awareness T-shirts only during pregame, players for the fourth straight year will wear more elaborate Autism Awareness jerseys with numbers on the back for the entire game.

Players participating in the challenge continued the tradition during last month’s reception of exchanging "autographed" colored puzzle pieces. The players asked relatives, friends, teachers and classmates to sign the puzzle pieces in exchange for a donation to the Teamwork Unlimited Foundation. Small change was as acceptable as dollar bills.

The colored puzzle pieces are symbolic of autism. Those diagnosed with the disorder – puzzling for it has no known cause – are as varied as the colors of a rainbow, reflecting the multi-colored puzzle piece symbol that has universally been adopted to promote autism awareness.

All challenge participants are encouraged to wear their "Autism Awareness" jerseys to school in the days leading up to the event to stimulate conversation among classmates.

2018 AUTISM AWARENESS BASEBALL CHALLENGE SCHEDULE

(All games at North Brunswick's Community Park)

April 20

A.L. Johnson vs. J.P. Stevens, 4 p.m.

Henry Hudson vs. EB Tech, 4 p.m.

Bernards vs. North Brunswick, 7 p.m.

St. Peter’s Prep vs. St. Joseph (Metuchen), 7 p.m.

April 21

Millburn vs. South Plainfield, 10 a.m.

Scotch Plains vs. Sayreville, 10 a.m.

Barnegat vs. Steinert, 1 p.m.

Governor Livingston vs. Edison, 1 p.m.

Delbarton vs. Red Bank Catholic, 4 p.m.

South River vs. Weehawken, 4 p.m.

Somerville vs. Elizabeth, 7 p.m.

Millville vs. Jackson, 7 p.m.

April 22

Spotswood vs. Robbinsville, 10 a.m.

South Amboy vs. Rahway, 10 a.m.

St Joseph (Montvale) vs. Holy Spirit, 1 p.m.

Voorhees vs. Middlesex, 1 p.m.

Pope John vs. Christian Brothers Academy, 4 p.m.

Hudson Catholic vs. Metuchen, 4 p.m.

Colonia vs. Bishop Ahr, 7 p.m.

Hillsborough vs. Old Bridge, 7 p.m.